For a Stronger Partnership, Think Like a Principal

To improve PTO-principal relations at your school, try seeing things from the principal’s point of view.

by Tim Sullivan


School principals can sometimes be obstacles, too dismissive or too controlling or too negative toward parent groups. I definitely get that, and I love the principals who value PTOs and PTAs as they should and who partner with them to create a healthy climate of collaboration and parent involvement. But I want to look at the difficult situations from a different perspective: Could it be that we as PTO and PTA leaders are a big part of the problem, too?

I think it’s always worth considering a situation from the other point of view. Just as the average parent at your school might not react to involvement opportunities the same way (or for the same reasons) as the PTO leaders do, it’s important to remember that a principal has tons of challenges and responsibilities beyond just keeping the PTO happy.

And that’s even truer today, when principals are not just education leaders but also, it would seem, security experts and high-stakes testing cheerleaders and labor lawyers and budget ninjas.

Faced with these realities, some principals do minimize their PTOs, in effect relegating the group to very small roles within the school. Or they take way too much control of their parent group in a misguided effort to keep things simple and predictable.

I’ve seen PTOs bringing these problems on themselves. Most often, that happens when the leadership—with good intention—forgets that the principal has a whole school to run.

Think about these scenarios: If you want lots of family events and you want faculty to attend them, the principal has to bear in mind how frequently she is asking her staff to attend events outside of school hours. If you want to run an event that also creates a big mess, the principal has to think about all the other special favors she’s had to ask of the janitors.

We PTO leaders sometimes also forget that in the public eye and in the view of the principal’s bosses, all of the PTO’s actions are a reflection of the principal and her school. You may well be entirely legally separate from the school, but if you write a bad email or your group is the victim of embezzlement, it’s your principal who will receive the complaints from parents and whose name will be in the paper.

What happens at the schools with the best principal-PTO partnerships is that the PTO is highly conscious of these concerns and works to make the principal a hero. Your principal won’t need to micro­manage your finances if you have strong financial controls. You’re far more likely to get calendar approval if you ask well in advance which times of year are too challenging and which have more openings.

The same applies if you have a principal who is too controlling for no good reason. You’re not going to change that by starting a power struggle. You can only gain independence and room to do more good work by addressing the principal’s fears head-on and leading with sugar instead of vitriol.

Do you really want to make headway with your principal? Find out what her biggest worry is about your parent group and address that directly. Find out what her number one goal for the school is this year and create programs focused on that.

The best PTOs care only about creating a great school and environment for kids and teachers. They don’t care about credit or about publicly winning battles with a principal. They also know that PTOs and PTAs that are allowed to operate more independently and that are given larger roles in their schools produce great results for schools (and for principals, too).

So the next time your principal is driving you crazy with nos or seemingly unreasonable demands, take a step back and think first about the real needs of a busy administrator whose job includes a lot more than just supporting your group.


# Grace Ann 2015-02-16 05:15
I totally understand the pressures of being a principal.... But I would love to fund someone to tell our principal that she is not over the PTO! She gets snippy with me anytime I try to explain that the PTO is a separate organization from the school. She's recently told me she's on the executive board and is supposed to be involved with any bylaw changes. They are very old and outdated and I am merely updating them to today's standards. She takes everything personally, like I do not trust her. My role as president is not about her... It's about the children! She is about to run off someone that has giving so much time and money already to the cause. I need help.
# Michelf4 2015-02-16 14:29
Your principal is right. If she is on the executive board than no decision should be made without her input or notification. That does not mean that she can not be outvoted. Actually everything should be run through the principal regardless. It is a courtesy that should not be overlooked.

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